But this is Rwanda and in the aftermath of last year's genocide, in which at least half a million people died, there is little sympathy for the fate of Hutus charged with their slaughter.
Such is the overcrowding in Gitarama, a prison built for 400 inmates, that each man has only half a square yard of space. The women's quarters offer minimal facilities. In the open courtyard, where the bulk of prisoners languish, most have no choice but to stand day and night. The revelations of a report just published by the aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres are alarming enough in themselves: one in eight prisoners in Gitarama has died during the past nine months.
Among referrals of inmates to a nearby hospital, 38 per cent are suffering from trauma wounds, including burst eardrums and bites caused by other prisoners; and 41 per cent are suffering from rotting feet from standing barefoot on the wet and dirty ground. Many have had toes, feet and legs amputated as a result.
Little, however - not even the swell of human voices nor the lion-house stench enveloping the immediate environs - prepares the visitor for the reality of this prison in central Rwanda. The heaving sea of faces and crush of semi-naked bodies gives little initial hope of penetrating much beyond the iron gate when it is unbarred by a prison warder. Inside a path somehow opens and the visitor is swallowed up. Arms like tendrils reach out to beg the attention of the newcomer; legs covered with suppurating sores are thrust forward in supplication.
"Aidez-nous," says one man with a thin, ravaged face. "Ce n'est pas un prison, c'est un tombeau."
Indeed, Gitarama is a grave for many of those who are confined within its high, ochre brick walls. More than 1,000 detainees have died of suffocation, disease and neglect since last September. Four men attempting to escape last month were shot dead and three were wounded.
Except for a hospital building for prisoners suffering from dysentery, Gitarama lacks proper medical facilities. The hospitalhas a capacity of only 25 cases and there are several patients to each befouled mattress. "The conditions here are completely inhumane. It's urgent that they are improved," said Brigitte Troyon of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is providing medical and other assistance to Rwanda's prisons. "Half a dozen people are dying in Gitarama every day. If an epidemic breaks out there's no knowing how many could die."
There is only one full-time doctor assigned to the prison. He is assisted by eight healthcare workers. With the incidence of skin infections, wounds and malnutrition increasing they are woefully unequal to their terrible task.
All services in the local hospital at Kabgayi are oversubscribed, so men who should be receiving emergency treatment are left to rot in the dank, seething courtyard. Moving through the ragged mass of humanity, one has constantly to avoid stepping on the bare, bloated feet of men forced to stand for interminable hours exposed to the elements. Those too weak to support themselves have slipped to the ground where they squat in filth.
Many foot sores have become gangrenous so that toes have turned black and rotten and fallen off. Advanced septicaemia has coloured some faces a ghastly yellow. Amid the choking smoke of the cooking area, men stir oil drums of beans and maize over open fires to provide the inmates with a single meal per day.
At the extremity of the courtyard is a concrete block which houses the longest-serving prisoners. Its cellar is a rank, reeking Hades into which hundreds of men are packed in complete darkness. The stairs and corridors are filled with inmates who dare not sit down for fear of being crushed.
The lucky ones have managed to stake out a space on the floors of the "dormitories" where they can lie down. But such is the overcrowding that even the latrines (of which there are only 20) are occupied by recumbent figures. As men slumber and defecate side by side, others sluice themselves in the outflow of an open sewer.
With a prison population of more than 48,000 and limited accommodation facilities, thegovernment has been forced to stop making arrests for crimes of genocide. The opening of provisional detention centres is being considered and an extension is being built at Gitarama. But the real cause of overcrowding - the inertia of judicial proceedings - shows no sign of resolution.
A year and a quarter after the start of the massacres, neither the international nor the Rwandan tribunal has completed a single genocide case due to a lack ofcash and logistical resources. Only a handful of detainees - many of them arrested on the evidence of a single witness - have had any access to legal representation.
"It's possible some are innocent," concedes Lt-Col Charles Kayonga, commander of Gitarama. "I'm not saying our methods were always thorough. But the vast majority of these people are killers."
So pervasive is Rwanda's sense of loss after the genocide and so overwhelming its need for retribution, that neither inhumane penal conditions nor possible miscarriages of justice impinge greatly on the national consciousness. More than two million Hutus, among them countless murderers, have escaped justice by fleeing to refugee camps in neighbouring countries or to Europe. The suffering of a few thousand whom the Tutsi authorities have been able to apprehend counts for little against the agony of the dead and the grief of the survivors.Reuse content